When Men Were Men

It must be terribly unsettling for old-timers to see how life has changed. Everything used to be so certain -- a place for everything and, of course, everything in its place. This peaceful stability -- where white, heterosexual Protestants ruled America and so-called family values prevailed -- has now been thoroughly shaken, not simply stirred. This chaotic change is even happening in football, of all places.

The report issued by noted attorney Ted Wells about bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room by Rich Incognito, among others, puts in question one of the established principles of the sport. Locker rooms were the place to toughen up your teammates -- even call them racist names and belittle their families and their manhood. That was how footballers prepared each other for the battle to come. It never made much sense, but that didn't really matter. It was part of football tradition. Does this mean that now teammates have to be nice to one another? What are we becoming?

One thing is for sure. We can no longer simply write off football concussions as the foreseeable result of getting one's "bell rung." You had to just tough it out and get back in the game. It happened to virtually everyone, so it must have been just part of football. It never even dawned on anyone that somehow these concussions would add up and result, after retirement, in dementia and deterioration. Some noticed that football players did not live as long as other people. (In fact, for every year of play in the NFL, a player's life expectancy is reduced by three years.) Football players were banged up every week they played. Why should concussions be any different from other weekly injuries?

We became acutely aware of the debilitating effect of playing NFL football when recently retired players, like Junior Seau, began to commit suicide. That made no sense. They had had great careers in the greatest game of all. However, they carried more than glory with them off the field. They carried the seeds of their own mental destruction.

The final blow to our self-induced illusions about football came a week ago when Missouri's brilliant defensive player, Michael Sam, revealed that he was gay. For those of us who work with gay men and lesbians or have homosexual family members, the response to the announcement was a resounding "so?" But for others with deep-seeded, perhaps religiously-based, disgust towards members of the gay community, the possibility of a gay man in a professional locker room was just too much to bear. What if he took a shower next to me? If that was your concern, then all the soap in the world could not wash the stain off your soul.

Upon the announcement, combined with the fact that Sam will stand for the NFL draft in early May, anonymous sources within some NFL clubs announced that his presence on a team would be a "distraction." The only thing the press will want to know from the players is how it is to change clothes next to a gay man. The fact that there have likely been closeted gay football players in the past would be irrelevant. And, after the Rich Incognito scandal, you couldn't even harass gay football teammates! What are we becoming?

We are becoming a more mature nation that recognizes the value that every man and woman brings to society whatever their race and sexual orientation. We are becoming a place where club owners cannot simply use up the talents of their remarkably athletic men and discard them on the trash heap after their years in the League. We are becoming a more humane place, even in sports. If that is disconcerting, then tough on you.